The Franco-Prussian War by Sir Michael Howard (1961)

Distinguished military historian Sir Michael Eliot Howard, OM, CH, CBE, MC, FBA published his definitive history of the Franco-Prussian War in 1961. In the foreword he apologises for adding to the enormous literature on the subject. This is ironic since nowadays it’s quite hard to find books about this conflict, compared with, say, the endless flood of books about the two world wars. While many of the other texts he refers to seem to have disappeared, his has emerged as the best one-volume history, even fifty years after publication.

Howard sets the tone on page 57:

Thus by a tragic combination of ill-luck, stupidity and ignorance France blundered into war with the greatest military power that Europe had yet seen, in a bad cause, with her army unready and without allies.

Background Otto von Bismarck, Prime Minister of Prussia, engineered wars with Denmark (1864) and Austria (1866) in order to unify as many German statelets as possible under Prussian leadership. Tension had been growing for some time between Prussia and France and Bismarck, convinced war was inevitable anyway, seized the opportunity provided by a squabble about the vacant crown of Spain to trick France into becoming the aggressor. The Spanish government had invited a German prince to become king of Spain; this was the so-called ‘Hohenzollern candidature‘. The French government of Emperor Napoleon III (nephew of the famous French general and emperor Napoleon I) protested. Bismarck made the German prince back down, but then engineered a situation where France felt so insulted at the way she had been treated that Napoleon III – his regime shaky and counting on the boost a quick victory would bring him – declared war on Prussia on 19 July 1870.

Bad idea. The Prussians had been busy harnessing their rapid mid-century industrial development to an efficient military machine; they were ready. They had a strategic plan to use their railways to carry troops to the border, they had better-designed artillery, they had been grooming an élite General Staff capable of providing everything necessary for big campaigns – food, uniforms, ammunition – their mobilisation plans were in place.

French military organisation was the opposite in every respect: chaotic, lacking guns and ammunition and uniforms, with no defined central authority, topped off with a lamentably poor standard of generalship.

The War – Part One Having declared war the French mobilised and  invaded Prussian territory at Saarbrucken.  After an initial victory they were halted, repelled and from that point never stopped retreating. Outside the fortress of Metz the Prussians divided the French armies: General Bazaine’s army was bottled up inside Metz for what turned into a two-month long siege, while General MacMahon’s army found itself pushed back towards the Belgium border until it was comprehensively defeated in the hills north of the town of Sedan. The Emperor Napoleon III was himself taken prisoner. In France the name ‘Sedan’ became synonymous with national humiliation for a generation.

Napoleon III went into exile in England, settling in Camden Place, Chislehurst (which can still be visited today) where he died in 1873. His last words were about Sedan.

The Line of Fire by Pierre-Georges Jeanniot (1886)

The Line of Fire by Pierre-Georges Jeanniot (1886)

The War – Part Two The Prussians expected the war to end with these military victories. But although the Imperial administration of Napoleon collapsed when he ran away, a new administration arose in Paris, declared itself the Third Republic, and pledged to continue the fight. The Prussians had to invade a lot more of northern France, surround and besiege Paris, and fight big battles around Orleans and to the east in the Vosges to secure their victory. December was a month of catastrophes for both armies which continued attacking and retreating through deep snow. The suffering was immense.

The End One of the most interesting parts of the book is how long it took to end the war. Howard sheds fascinating light on how difficult it was for the various conflicting elements on both sides to line up to any kind of agreement, with extremists in both countries calling for a continuation of guerre a l’outrance or to ‘the bitter end’. In fact, there had to be a succession of temporary agreements starting with negotiations in January and passing through various vicissitudes until the final Treaty of Frankfurt was signed on 10 May 1871.

Consequences

  • All Europe observed France’s fall from top military force in Europe, replaced by Prussia.
  • The remaining southern German statelets now joined the North German Confederation which Bismarck had set up, creating for the first time a unified German state, under the rule of Kaiser William. Bismarck arranged for it to be called not just a country, but the German Empire or Reich and for a reluctant King William to be crowned emperor – or Kaiser – Wilhelm, on January 18, in the conquered Palace of Versailles.
  • Germany annexed from France the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine, thus creating an enduring cause of resentment among the French.
  • France was left humiliated and demoralised. The psychological impact lasted a generation.
  • Howard identifies the biggest consequence as the widespread realisation that small professional armies were a thing of the past; the future belonged to states which could mobilise entire nations for war, harnessing their industrial strength, educated classes, the practical intelligence required for planning and logistics. All the nations of Europe saw and learned this lesson. The Treaty of Frankfurt led to 43 years of peace in Europe, but it was an uneasy peace haunted by the new ways of warfare, and kept in uneasy balance only by the clever diplomacy of Bismarck. After the next Kaiser, Wilhelm II, sacked the ageing Bismarck in 1890, he inaugurated a more reckless and aggressive German foreign policy which was to lead to disaster 24 years later (the First World War).

The book At 450 pages in my old, library, hardback copy, this is a long, meaty, thorough and detailed account. Howard gives very good descriptions of individual battles, and the hundred and fifty pages which describe the French army’s fighting retreat from Metz until it is annihilated at Sedan have a nightmareish quality, a continual chase which erupted into messy and bloody battles at a score of locations across eastern France before the final debacle.

He adds to these detailed accounts a sparing selection of judicious and interesting reflections. For me the most striking learning was the way the technology of primitive machine guns and breech loading rifles had changed the nature of battle from everything which preceded it. Cavalry was rendered obsolete; every use of cavalry in the war was a pointless bloodbath. The power of the new guns meant that neat advancing lines of infantry were mown down in massacres. Clever generals (ie the Germans) realised they had to delegate authority down to unit officers to advance in ragged sections, using initiative and cover. It seems barely conceivable that these lessons were forgotten by the time the Great War broke out 24 years later, and had to be heartbreakingly relearned at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives.

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2 Comments

  1. Rather strange that Howard would conclude that the Franco-Prussian War that sounded the death knell for small, professional armies, when I think it is generally accepted that the Napoleonic Wars and the rise of nationalization did this, resulting in the mobilization of large conscript armies. The fall of France as the military power to be emulated went beyond Europe: US Army uniforms often featured French-style kepi caps until the Franco-Prussian War; afterwards, US cavalry units could be seen sporting picklehauben! Your observation about lessons forgotten could be equally applied to lessons never learned: the entrenched battles of attrition around Richmond during the final years of the American Civil War foretold the trenches of the Great War, but were largely overlooked at the time. Nice review of a book I’ll have to look around for.

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